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Stepping Out (skit)
BRIDGES ~ Part IV ~ Stepping Out
PETER AND CORNELIUS
This story represents a pivotal experience in the life of the early church. It is the reason why the Christian church became something other than the Jewish sect where it began. This is how the church began to spread and became something that is open to all nations and all people.
At the time when this story opens, Jesus has died, has been resurrected, has ascended, the Holy Spirit has already come upon the disciples at Pentecost. The early church is just beginning to figure out what it is and where it's going and how it's going to get there. At this point, there are still no Gentiles that have become part of the church. The church at this point is still a sect of Judaism, and if you believed in Jesus you needed to be circumcised, to agree to become a Jew, to follow the Law, and then accept Jesus.
This story is the beginning of a change in that process, and it rattles the faith of its time to its foundations. This event is talked about extensively from chapter 10 all the way to chapter 15 where they have to have a whole church council to decide what to do about it. This is the earliest church realizing that the task of the church is, in fact, to cross bridges.
Beginning in verses 1-8, In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius." He stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" He answered, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside." When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
Now here are some things to know about the setting of this story. First, Cornelius is a military man, a centurion in the Italian Cohort. A cohort was about 600 men, and was divided into centuries, and each century had over it a centurion. In today's language, Cornelius was about the equivalent of a sargeant-major of a company. He's in Caesarea, which is primarily a Gentile city. Peter is down in Joppa, which is a seaport. Being in Joppa, there are some literary ties here that tie this story to the story of Jonah. Jonah starts out in this same city of Joppa, where Peter is. And as we know from the Old Testament, while Jonah is in Joppa he gets a call from God that says, "Go to Ninevah, this Gentile city, and preach to them and get them to repent." Jonah says, "No way, Jose," and he gets on a boat and goes in the other direction. Then he has to be thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish and thrown up on the land. Then God calls him again, and he does have to go to that Gentile city and preach to them, and the city is saved, much to Jonah's dismay.
As we will see in a little bit, we now have a similar call coming to Peter, who is also in the town of Joppa -- Peter, who is known in Matthew as "Simon bar-Jonah" -- Simon the son of Jonah. This tie says to us that what is going on here is not really a new thing. It's the same thing that God has wanted from God's people all the way back through time. From the call of Abraham that said, "I want you to be a blessing to all nations," to the call of Jonah that said, "I know you hate those people but I want you to go and preach to them anyway," to now the message that will come from the Gentile Cornelius to Peter.
The last thing to know about Cornelius is that he is what is known as a "God-fearer." That was a technical term in the Jewish faith for someone who was investigating the faith but hadn't made a commitment yet. A God-fearer would go to synagogue and learn about God, but had not been circumcised or committed to following the Law. The equivalent might be someone coming here to church, maybe accepting some things about God -- we see that Cornelius accepted enough to pray and to give alms -- but they haven't joined the church or been baptized. That's where Cornelius is in terms of the Jewish faith. Cornelius has been praying, and lo and behold, God even answers the prayer of a non-member.
Now we jump to Peter in verse 9: About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. in it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter, and kill and eat." But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
When we talked a couple of weeks ago about the leper, we talked about the categories of clean and unlcean that exist in Jewish Law. You can read about these in Leviticus. The food laws are specifically in Leviticus 11, where you can read the injunction against eating pork, because the pig was one of the animals that was considered unclean. There were certain animals that you could eat and certain animals that you couldn't eat. Now bear in mind that those laws are in Leviticus, in the Torah, which is the only Bible that Peter has. Peter accepts that Bible as the Word of God, and now God is having the audacity to tell him to eat things that God has already said in Leviticus that Peter shouldn't eat. Peter is having a tough time getting his brain around this. This is something in scripture that I think all of us need to wrestle with.
What the early church does is to reinterpret the only Bible that they have. They look at the old laws, and between chapter 10 and chapter 15 they decide that some of that doesn't apply any more. I want you to hear how radical that is. And that change is also a part of scripture. God is the living God. As holy and wonderful a book as this is, it is not God, and God will not be stuck within its pages, unable to get out. In this passage, God gets out. It's unsettling. Each of us has to wrestle with how we look at scripture and what it means for us. But I want to give you food for your wrestling. Even as you wrestle with what the Bible says, I want you to also wrestle with the fact that in the Bible itself God says, "I'm going to do a new thing now." We each have to come to grips with that for ourselves.
The story does not end there. Beginning in verse 17, Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon's house and were standing by the gate. They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them." So Peter went down to the men and said, "I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?" They answered, "Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say." So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging.
Now you can understand, from what came before, why Peter might be puzzled at this vision. He has the Bible on one side saying one thing, and he has his real experience of God on the other saying something different. But the meaning of the vision begins to unfold in a very real way. Here are these men, coming from Cornelius -- Gentiles. Peter is not supposed to be associating with Gentiles. It's against the Law. It is against the Law for Peter to be in the same house with Gentiles. Yet Peter has understood enough of the vision that when the men come and stop at the gate (and they rightly stop at the gate because they know it's unlawful for them to go in) Peter invites them to cross the bridge and to come into the house.
And then the next day, he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. The following day they ame to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. On Peter's arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. But Peter made him get up, saying, "Stand up; I am only a mortal." And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; and he said to them, "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?"
Cornelius replied, "Four days ago at this very hour, at three o'clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, "Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea." Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say."
Peter begins, at this point, to interpret the vision. He says, both to Cornelius and to himself, "I know now what this vision means. God is saying to me that I shouldn't call anyone unclean, that all of God's people are, in fact, clean. No matter what the Law says, God has shown me the truth of this." Peter crosses the bridge the other way. First he invites them into the house. Then he travels with some other believers to Caesarea, and walks into the home of a Gentile. Not only into the home of a Gentile, but of an officer in the military. Remember, Palestine is an occupied country. The Jews do not like the Romans. The Roman soldiers have been the cause of much of their misery. Yet, Peter crosses the bridge at the command of God.
The story goes on. Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is aceptable to him." Notice that he is saying that to a Gentile, which means that "whoever does what is right" has a much broader meaning now for Peter than it once did. As a Jew, one who "does what is right" is one who is circumcised, who follows the Law, who doesn't eat unclean food, and one who doesn't associate with unclean people. But here he is saying that Cornelius is acceptable, and therefore that Cornelius is one who "does what is right." Cornelius, who has not signed on the membership line, who has not been circumcised, has not been baptized.... What does Cornelius do? He prays and he gives alms. That's also something for us to think about.
Peter goes on then, and he preaches. He tells the story of what God has done in Jesus Christ. He tells about Jesus' coming, Jesus' death, and Jesus' resurrection. He tells about the forgiveness that is available to all. And then the fullness of the vision comes, beginning in verse 44.
While Peter was still speaking, [he's not even done with the sermon!] While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Beginning in chapter 11, Peter is in hot water when he goes back to Jerusalem. He is not doing anything that a good Jew is supposed to be doing. He's gone into Gentiles houses, eaten with them, stayed with them -- but more than that, he's making them a part of the faith. He is baptizing them in the name of Jesus Christ. This is the first Gentile to become a part of the church of Jesus Christ. Peter didn't have permission to do that. No one sent him with a letter saying it was all right to invite them in even though they were not circumcised. Peter did it anyway, because it was so evident that the Holy Spirit was living in them.
It's back to the living God again. God's going to do what God's going to do, whether we catch up or not. Thank God that Peter got the message. From the very beginning, this is what the church has been about. We might understand, when a person comes into the church, and then decides to be baptized and then join the church, if the Holy Spirit comes upon them then, we think that's how it's supposed to work. But here is God, bestowing the Holy Spirit while ignoring the rules. We need to think about that. We need to realize that from the very beginning, job #1 of the church has been to go out, to cross the bridge out into the world, not waiting for people to say that they are willing to take on the membership vows. God didn't wait for that. God still doesn't wait for that. We need to go out into the world and simply spread the word. Simply tell people what God has already done for them and for us in Jesus Christ. It's nice if they want to become a formal part of the community, and we can do a lot together that way. But the whole reason we exist as a community is to go out and to spread the word.
What are we doing just sitting in our churches? The bridge is there. We need to actually step over it. It's good that we invite anyone to step over our threshhold and come in, but we need to be willing to step over it and go out. That is the mission of the church. It has been the mission of God's people since the call of Abraham, that all nations should be blessed. Since God called Jonah to go to Ninevah. It's always been the message, from Genesis to Revelation, to go out to cross the bridge. That God is able to do a new thing. That God will be out there pouring out the God's Holy Spirit on anyone who is legitimately and earnestly seeking God, whether we have sanctioned them or not. It's Peter and Cornelius. We are all the same. We are all God's children. God wants all of us in the fold. God is already going a work out there. We can be a part of the program or we can insist that everyone needs to come in here. But a huge chunk of the formation of the early church was founded on something different.
We could do worse than to spend a year of our life chewing on what this passage means for ourselves and for the church. Are you able to let God do a new thing? In your life? In the church?
Skit © 2002, Jim Goddard
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